By  on October 6, 2008

Americans embrace bicycle travel as gas prices and obesity levels rise. 

With fuel prices significantly higher this year, the bicycle is an attractive alternative to a lot of Americans seeking more affordable modes of transportation.

This movement is not lost on casual and athletic apparel makers who already offer, or are introducing, urban cycling lines for the person who wants to ride a bike to the office—or store or restaurant—and doesn’t want to look like a racer in tight, brightly colored tops and shorts. Gramicci has a commuter cycling line for spring 2009, and Rapha is collaborating with Savile Row tailor Timothy Everest for a bespoke tailored jacket for fall and a line of ready-made dressy jackets for spring 2009. Wool apparel company SmartWool launched commuter cycling apparel at the recent Outdoor Retailer Summer Market for spring 2009. Swobo has had casual cycling apparel since it started in 1992, but president and founder Tim Parr said 2008 sales are up 110 percent so far over last year.

“There has been a heightened awareness in lifestyle [cycling], and it’s definitely youth-inspired,” Parr said.

“This was the summer of the bike,” added Tim Blumenthal, executive director of Bikes Belong, an association sponsored by the U.S. cycling industry to promote the use of bicycles. “This has been a tremendous summer for biking participation ... but it did not end at the end of the summer,” he said. “This seems mainstream.”

Blumenthal explained that several issues have arisen to make cycling more “appealing and fashionable” to Americans. One, of course, is the rise in gasoline prices. Others are obesity, air quality and climate change. However, he doesn’t expect many Americans to ride to work. “The average length of a commute in the U.S. is 24 miles,” he said. “Not many will ride that distance to work and back, but 40 percent of the trips that Americans make are two miles or less. That’s safer and more appealing.”

Bikes Belong sought to spur more interest in biking at both the Republican and Democratic conventions by making 1,000 bikes available at each that people could ride for free (using a credit card number as collateral). “We want to show that bicycles are a great way to get around a city,” Blumenthal said.

Apparel from four-year-old cycling company Rapha, which is based in London, is skewed to racers—it sponsors a team in the U.K.—but it also has more casual pieces, including a top, touring shorts and several T-shirts with bike-related graphics. Slate Olson, general manager of North America, said, “We definitely see more and more people getting on bikes as they look for alternative ways of transportation, and they’re looking for something that doesn’t have the look of race shorts.” Olson said the touring shorts, introduced this year, sold out fast and Rapha is now producing more. “They’re stylish and packable,” he said, “and some people like to wear them all day.”

Much of casual cycling apparel still has stretch, so the cyclist has freedom of movement. That bespoke jacket that Rapha’s cofounder and creative director Luke Scheybeler is developing now with Everest will offer that feature. Additionally, Rapha is also considering providing slacks and suits.

Swobo’s Parr said it was in the late 1970s and early 1980s that cycling was “abducted by athletics. All of a sudden, the bicycle was no longer relevant to get around town, but to do your personal best,” he said. “Our mission since 2002 was to make the bicycle an icon for lifestyle, and from that comes the apparel and the bikes.” Swobo also makes urban, non-racing bikes.

Swobo’s line includes bamboo and lightweight, machine-washable merino wool fabrics, and offers knit and woven tops, hoodies, a waxed cotton canvas jacket with quilted insulation, knickers and shorts. The Bruno knicker and Pony short don’t have stretch, but are more roomy.

Marty Weening, president of Gramicci, said the trend is fueled by “an emerging Millennia and Gen X consumer finding that biking to work is healthier and a better thing to do from a gasoline-price standpoint.” That’s the largest demographic, but the trend is ageless, he added.

People are pulling their bikes out of the basement or garage and restoring them, Weening said, an observation confirmed by Bikes Belong’s Blumenthal. “People are bringing in their old bikes and getting them repaired,” Blumenthal said. He also notes that new bike sales are down so far this year. But if someone is interested in purchasing an urban bike (not racing), the basic model is only $350 to $400. “Because of advances in construction and materials, it performs as well as the $800 bike [of] five years ago,” he said.

The Gramicci line includes reversible, screenprinted T-shirts with sayings, such as “Drive Less and Bike More,” plus pants, jackets and even jeans. 

Molly Cuffe, communications manager for SmartWool, said her company’s employees, as well as consumers, were asking for commuter cycling apparel. SmartWool has a biking program for its employees. “[The new line] fits with our corporate values, and also with a consumer and employee need,” she said. “We believe in getting people out of their cars and onto their bikes.” The line includes washable, lightweight merino wool shorts, a retro sweater jersey, polo shirts, and arm and knee warmers.

Pearl Izumi has a small line, Versa, appropriate for urban biking, but Geoff Shaffer, marketing director, said the primary business is still performance cycling. “We saw this as a growing market three years ago when we got into it,” he said. He adds that Pearl Izumi’s business has been strong this year, because people are staying closer to home for their vacations and riding their bikes. “We know more people are riding in looser-fit products,” he said.  

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